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With New Book, A Discovery of Magic

As a researcher, USC College's Deborah Harkness studies science and magic of the early modern period. As a novelist, she explores the hidden world of modern-day witches, vampires and daemons in her first work of fiction, A Discovery of Witches.

Deborah Harkness, professor of history in USC College, explores the hidden world of modern-day witches, vampires and daemons in her new book, <em>A Discovery of Witches</em>. Portrait photo credit Marion Ettlinger.
Deborah Harkness, professor of history in USC College, explores the hidden world of modern-day witches, vampires and daemons in her new book, A Discovery of Witches. Portrait photo credit Marion Ettlinger.

There's a certain magic that Deborah Harkness finds in libraries.

On one hand, for a historian who studies the science and magic of the 16th and 17th centuries such as Harkness, they provide a venue for her to "meet" her research subjects.

On the other, "they’re places where you get a sense when you walk in that the answers to all of your questions may somehow be inside if only you knew where to find them,” she said.

Harkness, professor of history in USC College, can recall with clarity one of her favorites, Oxford University’s English gothic-style Bodleian Library. Her love for the Bodleian ran so deep she cast it as a magic-rich setting of her first novel, A Discovery of Witches, which will be released by Viking Press on Feb. 8.

The Bodleian Library is where the story’s heroine Diana, a historian and a reluctant witch, uncovers an ancient, enchanted manuscript that appears to hold a key into her own past as a descendant from a long heritage of witches.

The text, which was lost long ago, stirs up a veiled community of supernatural creatures, including vampires, witches and daemons, who clamor for the mysterious book. 

Much like Harkness’s own research — unraveling the lives of historical figures — A Discovery of Witches follows Diana’s investigation into the strange manuscript, unraveling the secrets of her own past.

The novel is the first in a trilogy, and will be published in more than 30 languages — a testament to the material’s popularity.

With the surge of stories featuring the supernatural — think Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries — audiences appear to have a voracious appetite for otherworldly creatures, and she was prompted by her own curiosity for the phenomenon when she put pen to paper. 

"I was wondering what it was about witches and vampires and things that go bump in the night — why they’re so popular and omnipresent in modern culture,” Harkness said.

She also notes that a fascination with the occult is nothing new. During the time period that she studies, from roughly 1400 to 1700, she says that people genuinely believed that creatures such as witches and vampires lived among them.

"They had different ideas about the world and how it worked," she explained. "So I started thinking: What if the early modern people I study were right? What if there are witches and vampires all around us?"

Harkness will discuss that possibility and read an excerpt from A Discovery of Witches at a special event sponsored by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute in the Doheny Memorial Library at USC on Feb. 8, the book’s release date. At the event, Harkness will sign copies of the novel, which will be available for purchase.